As the search for College of Charleston’s next president winds down, members of the school’s minority community hold different opinions about their input throughout the process.
In January, former state senator and lieutenant governor Glenn McConnell announced that he would retire as head of the 248-year-old public university in the summer, citing concerns over his age and health.
His rise to the presidency in 2014, via appointment by the College’s Board of Trustees, was received unfavorably by students and faculty who were concerned about his lack of education experience, unsatisfactory answers to the need for diversity at the College, and his “association with the Confederacy,” according to history professor Sandra Slater at the time, who attended open faculty meetings about McConnell’s possible ascent.
McConnell has taken heat for dressing like a Confederate soldier, previously owning a store in North Charleston specializing in Confederate memorabilia, and helping to pass the S.C. Heritage Act during his time in the state Senate. The act requires a two-thirds vote from lawmakers to alter or remove S.C. monuments, which makes any change difficult, but makes dismantling public celebrations to slave-owners and the Lost Cause virtually impossible.
A March 2014 poll of 760 faculty members found that 83 percent of respondents thought of McConnell as unacceptable for the presidency days before trustees voted unanimously to install him. Students held multiple rallies on campus before McConnell officially took office in July of that year.
“The wound has been made, and it is unclear to me how the College will recover,” said German professor Morgan Koerner in an email to the City Paper at the time.
In February of this year, the audience at the Sottile Theater erupted into cheers when MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid brought up McConnell’s resignation during a panel discussion about the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Among the panelists was Dr. Patricia Lessane, the executive director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College, who rejoiced along with the crowd.
Despite her feelings at the time, she’s not confident that trustees took heed of the faculty’s wishes in this year’s presidential search process. Professors took their concerns to them, but Lessane doesn’t think they were all ears.
“Based upon our interaction with them at that meeting, I knew I wasn’t gonna participate in any of the focus groups that happened over the summer,” she said in a phone interview with CP. “I’m just being honest.”
The official search committee is composed of eight members: Five trustees, one former trustee, and two members of the faculty. The decision to keep the committee small was intentional, according to Renee Romberger, a trustee leading the committee, in order to ensure the confidentiality of their discussions.
Students were not added to the body, but they were invited to various listening sessions, according to Bill Funk, the CEO of R. William Funk & Associates, a Texas-based executive search firm hired by the College in May.
“We were really overwhelmed with the response,” Romberger said. “Interestingly enough, each one of the stakeholder groups really homed in on some key critical elements. Those were consistent across the board.”
They wanted a leader capable of creating a strategic plan for the years ahead, someone committed to the school’s liberal arts philosophy, a proven fundraiser, and someone with an open door policy.
“Clearly, stakeholders want to see a president who is out among the people, if you will,” she said.
Funk says there was considerable overlap between what students, faculty, and alumni wanted during the 12 listening sessions held by his firm in the summer.
“They wanted to see a president who showed up for athletic events and plays and student activities, someone who was visible and approachable,” he said. “We heard from both groups about someone who understood higher education. There was a real emphasis placed on someone who came from within the academic world.”
Courtney Hicks, a communication and African American studies major and the president of the natural hair care club Collegiate Curls, attended two listening sessions with administrators during the spring semester.
She says the sessions were a “great” outlet for students like her to voice their hopes for a president who isn’t yet another white guy. Along with a more diverse choice, Hicks says she hopes for a president that will be more involved than McConnell was.
“It just seems as though the past president was not a servant leader,” she said. “He did not have open office hours for students, he was not at a lot of minority events. If you saw him, he’d be doing things for press and shaking hands and going about his business, versus going to LGBT events or Women’s and Gender Studies events or different things that are important to students who may feel unsafe in the world we’re living in today.”
She says McConnell’s soft spot for the trappings of the Confederacy was disconcerting for minority students at the College, which was 80 percent white as of Fall 2017.
“Him being an adamant supporter of the Confederacy made a lot of students feel uncomfortable,” Hicks added. “As if they couldn’t talk about the issues of racism on campus to administration because administration may already be biased because of something that was near and dear to his heart.”
The search committee narrowed down a list of 115 candidates to 10, which included four white males, with the other six being either women or people of color. Those 10 were narrowed down to five — only one of whom is a white male. The Board of Trustees will whittle the shortlist down to three candidates who will be invited to Charleston for final interviews next month.
A final choice is likely by the end of the year.
“I would tell you that there is, throughout the country, a desire to have more diverse pools [of candidates],” said Funk, whose last three searches at San Diego State University, the University of Utah, and the University of Louisville all resulted in female presidents. “The advantage that CofC has in attracting minorities and women is that it’s a fairly robust metropolitan area.”
The current Interim President of the College of Charleston is Stephen C. Osborne, who was previously a senior advisor to President McConnell.